From the Forge: Dialogue as Action

The Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen said, “Dialogue is what characters do to each other.”
By that definition, dialogue is action. And if dialogue is action, then the same constraints that apply to writing an action scene apply to writing a dialogue scene. I have written columns on “Writing Strong Scenes” and “Conflict.” Writing strong scenes depends on conflict, and conflict always depends on motivation. Motivation is desire. So when writing an action scene, or when writing dialogue, you should ask yourself the following questions:
What do my characters want?
What is keeping each character from getting what she/he wants?
What’s holding the characters together, or keeping them apart?
Where are they? (Where your characters are is sometimes as important as what they are doing. Setting should reinforce, or clash with, a character’s desire.)
Start by looking for tension in the dialogue. Your everyday, real-life conversations, may exhibit little or no tension. But everyday, real-life conversations are real sleepers in a story. Conflict is at the heart of every interesting piece of fictional dialogue. The tension may be simmering below the surface in one exchange, then erupt in another. But it should be there.
Tom Chiarella, in his book Writing Dialogue, from Story Press, says, “If you are trying to write convincing, compelling stories, the relationship between the characters ought to be your primary concern.” In other words, you must know your characters’ desires, fears, pet peeves, private obsessions, revulsions, dreams, loves, even how they like their eggs cooked. Then your dialogue will grow out of who your characters are. The particulars of a dialogue—things like pace, tone, diction, syntax—come from the individual voice of each character. The specific techniques you use— interruption, echoing, silences, reversals—must reinforce that voice.
Know your characters. Then write great dialogue.